Fairfax Postpones Vote About Student Behavior Study

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 11, 2008

The Fairfax County School Board voted unanimously last night to postpone a decision on whether to accept a school system report that showed racial and ethnic gaps in certain measures of achievement in character education.

Debate on the report, which has emerged as a sensitive matter for the region's largest school system, dealt in part with possible biases in its underlying data and in its presentation. Several board members said they supported delaying a vote on acceptance of the report so they could spend more time discussing it.

Several board members said beforehand that they had too many questions about the report. Among the issues they raised: whether assessments of student behavior and moral character are biased and whether sifting such data by race, ethnicity and other factors will help or hinder the school system's efforts to promote effective character education.

"I believe we need to go back to the drawing board," Martina A. Hone (At-Large) said at the meeting as she proposed a motion to delay action until no later than June 19. The motion won unanimous approval shortly before 11 p.m.

Hone said board members and staff need to look at ways to present the information without "the unintended consequences of showing numbers that would have the effect of demoralizing children or feeding into negative stereotypes."

School systems are required to break down academic data by race and ethnicity under the federal No Child Left Behind law, but it is less common to analyze data about student behavior or morality the same way. Fairfax school officials are trying to chart new territory by developing assessments for non-academic life skills the board considers "essential" to success for the current workforce.

Initial attempts to measure progress yielded results that many school officials found surprising. The report, presented March 27, detailed a disparity in a category of achievement for demonstration of moral character and ethical judgment: 82 percent of African American third-grade students, 83 percent of special education students and 86 percent of Hispanic students received "good" or "outstanding" marks on certain related indicators on their elementary school report card compared with 95 percent of Asian American and white students.

The report card indicators cited included "accepts responsibility," "listens to and follows direction," "respects personal and school property," "complies with established rules" and "follows through on assignments."

The analysis also found gaps among groups of students in other skills, including being able to contribute effectively in a group, resolve conflicts and make healthy choices.

About a dozen people turned out to oppose board acceptance of the report. John Johnson, a member of a committee that advises the board on minority student achievement issues, questioned the report's validity because it drew on often-subjective sources of data. He said the report could fuel long-held beliefs that have been used to justify discrimination against minorities. "That's the biggest fear," he said.

Before the meeting, several board members said the report needed a closer review.

"The message that seems to be out there, that some people's morals are better than others, that's not where we wanted to go with this report," said board member Kathy L. Smith (Sully). The board's goal, she said, was to "ensure that kids have the skill sets they need to be successful."

"We started this, but that does not mean that we are done," she said.

Tessie Wilson (Braddock) said she was worried that it might not make sense to assess special education students by the same standards as other students. Classroom behavior for someone with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder might involve different challenges, she said. "You have to be careful about what it is you are trying to measure," she said.

She said the findings raise thought-provoking questions about possible biases in the data and whether some disparities could stem from differences in cultural standards of behavior.

Fairfax School Superintendent Jack D. Dale applauded the board for starting a conversation that might deepen its understanding of the social and cultural complexity of the 165,700 students in the county schools. "That is probably one of the most important discussions for any school board" to have, he said in an interview.

Breaking data into racial and ethnic groups, he said, can improve understanding about how students are faring. But he said such methods have limitations in an immigrant-rich, diverse school system.

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